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A tanker continues to burn as firefighters douse rail containers in downtown Lac-Mégantic, Que., on Sunday. (MOE DOIRON/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
A tanker continues to burn as firefighters douse rail containers in downtown Lac-Mégantic, Que., on Sunday. (MOE DOIRON/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Train operator blames air brakes for derailment, explosions in Quebec Add to ...

The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway singled out the air brakes of a runaway train that destroyed much of downtown Lac-Mégantic, Que., in a statement on Sunday afternoon, commenting for the first time on what could have gone wrong with the doomed train.

After finding the train’s black box on Sunday, federal investigators warned against early conclusions, citing “conflicting information” about the deadly derailment.

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The company has confirmed the train’s itinerary. The five locomotives and 72 wagons in the train were idled outside of the small Quebec town at 11:25 p.m. Friday evening and left unmanned to await a new crew. The conductor headed to a hotel in Lac-Mégantic.

Before the driver left, he activated the train’s air brakes and manual braking system.

A passerby called emergency services at 12:15 a.m. Saturday to report that the train was on fire. A fire crew from the village of Nantes responded and employees from the railway secured the train.

“It’s not uncommon for locomotives at times to have sparking,” explained Transport Safety Board manager Ed Belkaloul, confirming the fire would be part of the federal investigation.

Once again unattended, the train’s air brakes failed before 1:00 a.m. and millions of litres of crude oil headed towards the unsuspecting town, the company said.

According to the railway, the train’s locomotive was “shut down subsequent to the departure of the engineer,” depriving the train’s air brakes of the power needed to keep the load from careening downhill.

Quebec provincial police have confirmed that the deadly derailment left five dead, while 40 remain unaccounted for.

Due to the intense heat of the explosions and subsequent fires, federal officials have yet to access the crash site.

The inspectors will interview the train’s crew and company officials, a “standard part of the process” according to spokesman Chris Krepski. He could not confirm whether the interviews had already taken place.

This is not the railway’s first mishap this year. In June, a tanker wagon spilled 13,000 litres of diesel near Lac-Mégantic.

Officials from the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic have been absent in the shattered community.

Federal NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair singled out the company on Sunday, saying that “a more active response” was expected from the train’s owner.

Responding to the criticism, the railway wrote in a press release that “a dozen” representatives were in the community, including the American company’s president. Calls to the company’s head office in Maine have gone unanswered.

A spokeswoman for the Quebec provincial police also said on Sunday that she had not heard from officials from the company and did not believe they were in the town of 6,000 people.

Visiting the community on Sunday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper refused to discuss the increasing use of trains to transport petroleum products and the related security issues. “It would be irresponsible to comment before we have the facts,” he said. “We will see the results of the investigations and act on the recommendations.”

Follow on Twitter: @justincgio

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